miniNodes: Low Cost, High Efficiency Arm Dedicated Microservers

This article is part of the Arm Innovator Program, a series created to highlight the work of key technical leaders who are pushing the boundaries of how Arm architecture can enable next-generation solutions.

Meet David Tischler, Cofounder of miniNodes

For over a decade, David supported advanced users in the hosting and dedicated server industry. During his career, David found all sorts of people doing innovative things with Arm technologies. David cofounded miniNodes to evangelize Arm servers, and prove that not every application requires big, expensive, power hungry servers.

Q: How did miniNodes get started?

David: Rewinding a few years, I was employed in the hosting industry, selling and supporting Virtual Servers and Bare Metal Servers. Day after day, I would listen to customers explain their needs, and watch them purchase far more hardware than necessary for their use cases (even as I tried to convince them smaller, cheaper boxes would run their applications perfectly well). On nearly every support ticket that my teams worked, we would log in to a machine, and find the servers were idle for the vast majority of their day.  

I began to wonder if there were ways to reduce energy consumption for servers sitting on racks that were essentially idle all day, or if perhaps high-powered, high-cost servers just weren't needed for every use case out there. I had already been playing with Raspberry Pis as cheap home automation and hacker projects, so I started to wonder if they could take on the role of a small server too.

Sure enough, I found the Raspberry Pi to perform quite admirably for basic tasks like hosting a website, hosting Domain Name Servers (DNS), functioning as an email server, communicating with IoT devices, home automation, and other smart devices, and even running lightweight environments like the MEAN stack.

Q: Tell us more about miniNodes

David: miniNodes was born with the aim of providing small, cheap, energy efficient and right-sized servers. Although the Raspberry Pi is our most popular product, we also host Linaro / 96Boards HiKeys, Pine64s, Odroids and more. 

We sell and provision a lot of Raspberry Pis for customers. While it's not terribly difficult to format SD Cards, build towers of Pis, cable everything cleanly, and deploy Pis in bulk, it certainly does become time consuming.  When the Raspberry Pi Compute Module was introduced, I realized this could be a great way to bring automation into the environment, and additionally to begin offering "Compute Clusters" made up of several nodes on a private LAN. With generous support from Arm and GumStix, miniNodes has now designed a proof-of-concept board that will allow just that.

Q: What makes miniNodes different?

David: miniNodes operates in a very unique space, focusing on low-wattage Arm powered dedicated servers. As such, there are a few key technical stats (differences) that make us special: First and foremost, of course, is that we only offer Arm servers! So, customers who are specifically looking for Arm powered servers tend to find us easily. For now, customers typically look for Arm servers when they want to test code or compile source code natively on Arm (32 or 64 bit, we offer both). With the enterprise class Arm processors such as Qualcomm Centriq, Cavium ThunderX, and Ampere X-Gene gaining momentum and market share in the datacenter, many application developers are beginning to test compatibility on Arm platforms. miniNodes hosts CI/CD build nodes for a diverse set of project teams including NodeJS, OpenSuse, Bitcoin, Monero, the University of Michigan, and more.

The price point at which miniNodes offers our boards differentiates us from other providers. Obviously, the specs of our boards are modest in comparison to other dedicated server providers, but we've found that not everyone needs high-powered Xeons with large amounts of RAM and storage. Many end-users are perfectly fine with only 1 or 2GB of RAM and 16 to 32gb of disk space, as they are not doing complex activities with their servers. Basic email, web hosting, IoT gateways, or home automation controllers are just some of the many use cases we have seen customers deploy on our servers. Entry level servers from major competitors start at $75 to $100 (up to $500 or more), so we are significantly cheaper for a dedicated server when a customer needs basic capabilities. 

Q: How are servers moving closer to the edge?

David: This is something that miniNodes will tackle in the next year to two years with an east coast point of presence, but ultimately as more and more compute is consolidated in large data centers, latency back to users who may be on mobile devices or anywhere in the world becomes an issue. Heavy compute workloads certainly make sense to handle in the cloud where the data centers have the enterprise-grade resources, but for less intensive workloads, cached data, and other low-impact compute services, having the resources closer to the user helps speed up the user experience. Bringing low-power servers to the edge of the network can reduce bandwidth costs for an organization (AWS for example, currently charges per gigabyte for bandwidth / traffic leaving their cloud), or can speed up application or web-page load times for users on mobile devices. 

 miniNodes Cluster Board project with GumStix

miniNodes Cluster Board project with GumStix

Q: Tell us about the new miniNodes Cluster Board project with GumStix

David: The new miniNodes Cluster Board consists of 5 Raspberry Pi CoM slots to hold the Pi Compute Modules, with a gigabit Ethernet switch built right in, all conveniently laid out on a small PCB with a single power input and Ethernet port.  This design will certainly save space and cabling mess but will also allow us to build automation into our sales and provisioning process. If all goes well, the board should also allow us to begin engineering a "Hosted Cluster" product, consisting of up to 5 nodes on a private LAN. This would be perfect for testing Docker Swarm, Kubernetes, or other multi-node applications.

We originally designed the board to help alleviate some of the manual work associated with deploying full size Raspberry Pis in bulk. But, based on the constant stream of RaspPi clusters and towers that appear in our Twitter feed, we think this board might be of use to the home automation hackers out there, Docker and Kubernetes developers, the serverless / OpenFaaS community, and more. We'd also like to make it generally available for purchase by anyone who wants one; Just drop in some Pi CoMs, and build something cool! We'd love to hear about it. Ping us on Twitter or shoot us an email. Happy hacking!

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